BY CHARLES GREGG-GEIST
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 9, 2008
At 4 a.m. on the first day of class, while most students were enjoying one last night of good sleep before the start of the school year, Engineering seniors Jason Bornhorst, Dheeraj Sanka and Brent Traut were wide awake, loading white folding chairs into a trailer attached to Bornhorst’s car.
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The chairs, spray painted with the message “your neighbors could be sitting here,” were the beginning of what the three friends call a “guerrilla marketing campaign” for the social networking website they founded this summer, CampusRoost.com.
The website aims to help students meet and interact with their neighbors. The biggest difference between CampusRoost and other social networking sites is that instead of each user maintaining his own page, there’s one for every residence – or roost, as they’re dubbed on the site.
But like every social networking site, its strength is in numbers. To promote their product, the trio spent the morning scattering the chairs on front lawns, porches and in classrooms across campus.
“We’d just stop in the street, and Dheeraj and I would get out, and just put them on houses, and then we’d go to the next street," Bornhorst said. "It took us all night.”
Many students have paid particular attention to the on-campus additions.
“In Angell Hall, there’ll be a sea of brown chairs, and then a white CampusRoost chair,” Traut said.
Along with 200 of the chairs, the trio put up large banners across campus, handed out free T-shirts, and slid fliers under residential doors. The intense marketing campaign has used about $4,000 of the organization's $25,000 budget, Bornhorst said.
The company is funded by a grant it won last year in a competition called RPM 10. Sponsored by the College of Engineering and local venture capital firm RPM Ventures, the competition provided the students with free office space, legal counsel and other assistance for a year, along with the start-up cash.
Bornhorst now serves as the fledgling company's chief executive officer. Sanka is chief information officer, and Traut, who wrote most of the code for the site, is chief technical officer.
Bornhorst said he and Sanka originally dreamed up a "one-stop-shop website for student housing" in entrepreneurship classes last year, but when the plan fell through, the team had to switch focus. And that change of focus resulted in CampusRoost.
If the site works as its creators hope, those chairs might soon be put to use. The site has already gained notoriety on campus, mostly because of the unorthodox marketing campaign.
“As soon as the name CampusRoost comes up, people say, ‘Chairs, chairs, you do the chairs,’” Bornhorst said. “Either they got one themselves, or one of their friends got one.”
The site itself is unorthodox in its own right. Each roost page has space for "roostmates" to describe their house or apartment, their collective interests and the classes each person is taking. There is also a posting wall and a checklist of activities the roost wants to be involved in, including parties, concerts, study groups, bookclubs, and to "Just Chill.”
Organized into neighborhoods, the site is linked to Google Maps and users are automatically connected with with all roosts within one block of them. In a dormitory, it's all rooms in their hall.
The site uses a feature called “chirps” to broadcasts a message to the user’s roostmates, friends, neighbors or any combination of the three. Suggested chirps on the site include, “let’s go out for dinner,” “pickup bball,” or “natty light anyone?”
But the marketing isn’t just generating buzz — it’s drawing users. The founders said yesterday that though the site still had less than 1,000 members, it’s growing by between 100 and 150 users a day. So far, about two-thirds of the users live off campus, Bornhorst said.
“I’d say on South Campus, it’s now become a usable entity,” he said.